Schools are closing for millions of kids as teachers get sick and COVID cases surge. Some districts are holding out.

Erin Richards
Elinor AspegrenUSA TODAY

November 20, 2020

The dominos are beginning to fall at America’s schools.

After weeks or months of operating in person, schools are shifting students back to remote learning as the nation grapples with soaring COVID-19 infections. Starting Monday, millions more students will be connected to their teachers only by whatever internet or phone connection they can secure.

In many cases, schools are closing because too many teachers are quarantined or infected with COVID-19. Others are responding to high rates of virus transmission in their communities.Kentucky’s governor announced a statewide closure of schools to take effect Monday, a move that followed Michigan closing all high school classrooms and New York City schools — the largest district in the country —  moving back to all-remote learning.

Already, just over 40% of schoolchildren are attending only virtual classes, a figure that’s risen from 36.9% Sunday, according to Burbio, a company that aggregates school calendars. 

Adding to the confusion and stress of the moment: The metrics used for closure, and the scope of the shutdowns, diverge wildly, sometimes even within the same county. Schools can be considered safe in one town or state and ordered closed in another, even though that area has less community spread of the virus. 

Many of the closure announcements are facing political pushback, including from the White House and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s in addition to parent gripes about rearranging work schedules or again subjecting children to the subpar experience of virtual learning. Underscoring it all are doubts about whether school closures actually work — or cause even more harm.

Political leaders making the call

Kentucky’s Democratic governor on Wednesday ordered all public and private schools to shutter classrooms starting Monday, a move that drew criticism from the Republican leader of the state Senate. Also this week, Michigan’s Democratic governor ordered all high school and college classrooms to close for three weeks — along with bars and indoor dining. Kentucky’s governor also halted indoor services at bars and restaurants until at least Dec. 13. Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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New York City’s schools shifted to all-remote learning Thursday because the rate of positive tests for COVID-19hit the 3% threshold set locally to trigger a shutdown. Critics said it didn’t make sense to close schools when bars and gyms could stay open. What’s more, the virus rate transmission within New York City’s public school buildings had stayed very low, around 0.22% according to the latest in-school testing results.

Students Kenny Scottborough, left, and Tai Nguyen work on their computers completing their lessons at West Brooklyn Community High School on Oct. 29 in New York.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, defended the decision. But he also said he’d be meeting with the state to revise those standards for closure and would make a new announcement before Thanksgiving, according to an interview Thursday on CBS This Morning.

Still, as COVID-19 cases skyrocket, some East Coast governors — including New York’s — are hoping to keep schools operating in person, as long as rates of transmission within schools themselves stay low. Thegovernors of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts released a joint, bipartisan statement Thursday backing the importance of continuing in-person education with the appropriate safety protocols, even in the face of rising rates of community transmission.

“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low income families,” it said. “There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.

Vice President Mike Pence and CDC Director Robert Redfield said Thursday they do not recommend closing schools.

Infections identified in schools were not acquired there. “They were actually acquired within the community and the household,” Redfield said during the White House coronavirus task force briefing, the first public address the unit has made since July.

Support for keeping schools open has come from outside the U.S. as well. With basic safety measures in place, the benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the cost of closing them, as schools are not a main place of transmission, child humanitarian aid organization UNICEF said in a new report Thursday. Children are more likely to get infected outside of the classroom, the report noted.

Kids were headed back to school:They were in class at majority of nation’s biggest districts – just as COVID cases surged

What threshold should trigger a school closure?

For months, schools have lacked consistent guidance about how rates of virus transmission should affect decisions to hold in-person classes. That’s part of why there’s so much debate among parents and politicians, and why, in many cases, superintendents and individual school leaders have made the calls on their own.

New York City is an outlier in using such a stringent rate of community transmission — a 14-day average of 3% in positive tests for the virus —  to trigger schools to move to remote learning. The CDC and the World Health Organization have recommended schools could operate safely in person with virus positivity rates at around 5% or less. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, once said districts shouldn’t bring people together if the rate of local positive virus cases exceeds 10%. 

But some states and districts have been operating schools with different rates in mind.

In Iowa, the Republican governor and Department of Education set 15% and 20% virus positivity thresholds, calculated over 14 days, for determining whether districts should shift to online-only learning. Arizona set three different benchmarks to trigger school closures, but they’re all optional

Some education experts defend those higher virus thresholds.

“The school (rate of infection) tends to be lower than the community rate,” Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate director for the School Superintendents Association, said last month. 

Others insist school reopenings are risky, especially amid community outbreaks. 

“Our schools are a part of the community, and if the community is not taking seriously getting their infection rates down, it’s going to bleed over into our schools,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the U.S.

Schools want to end online classes: But COVID-19 cases may send everyone home

Bonnie Baker hugs student Elisha Ross as they line up to go outside for recess at Hillview Elementary. Although Newark City Schools have gone virtual due to COVID-19, special education classes remain in-person. Teachers had to put away all toys and books that could not be washed and sanitized and students are separated for free play time to cut down on their contact with each other.

Without staff, schools can’t operate

Some school closure decisions have come down to one factor: whether there’s enough staff to operate classrooms. Districts are experiencing staffing shortages because of employees being out sick themselves or quarantining because of exposure to other infected people.

In Indiana, Hamilton Southeastern Schools, a suburban Indianapolis district of nearly 22,000 students, started last week by moving middle and high schoolers to e-learning for the rest of the semester. The district planned to redirect some staff and substitutes to lower grades to keep those schools open. 

By Tuesday,after more than 90 staffers needed substitutes and more than 20 of those were unfilled, the Hamilton Southeastern school board voted to move lower grades to virtual learning through Dec. 4. It’s the only school district in Hamilton County to make that move.

A few miles south, all school buildings are closing. The health department in Indianapolis has ordered all schools in Marion County, both public and private, to shift to virtual learning by Nov. 30. That move will affect roughly 200,000 students.

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In Pennsylvania, health officials in the state’s third-most populous county have ordered all public and private schools to shift to virtual learning for two weeks starting next week — a move that some parents in the suburban Philadelphia community have protested.

One district couldn’t hold out that long.

Cases were rising so fast, the superintendent of the Hatboro-Horsham School District, which serves about 5,000 students, said on Monday he had “operational and functional concerns” about staying open. At that time, 141 students and 31 staff members were in quarantine.

By Thursday, the district had flipped to all-virtual learning.

“The numbers are rapidly increasing and entering a really concerning area,” Eveslage said during a school board meeting.

Only time will tell if other schools can stay the course on in-person learning as the nation enters what some are calling the third wave of the pandemic. 

One potential bellwether could be in the state of Oregon. 

On Oct. 30, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown announced that the daily cases in the state topped 600 — a record at the time. At the same time, she relaxed metrics for school reopening that would allow up to 130,000 students statewide to return to class.

“With adherence to safety protocols – wearing face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing – what is really clear is that schools are not superspreaders,” Brown said in a Oct. 29 news conference.

Oregon’s daily COVID-19 cases surpassed 1,200 Thursday, and Brown has ordered a two-week statewide freeze on businesses, forcing bars and restaurants to takeout-only and closing gyms.

Oregon’s schools, however, can continue to operate under the previous rules.

At least for now.